Swords and Plowshares

Aug. 1, 1959

You wouldn’t know it to watch a housewife picking canned goods off the shelf in a supermarket, but she is buying the results of a military research and development program. It was a program set up by Napoleon, a general usually credited with the observation that an army travels on its stomach.

The man who made it possible to fill army stomachs out of cans was a Frenchman named François (Nicolas) Appert, winner of a 12,000-franc prize offered by Napoleon for perfection of a method of preserving food in containers for using in the field.

There is no record to show how the 12,000 francs appeared on Napoleon’s budget, but it is a fair guess that some eagle-eyed critic tried to cross it off on the assumption that any franc saved from the defense effort was a true and worthwhile economy. Canning of food a military requirement Don’t be silly. Military expenditures must be confined to expendable goods — boots, bullets, and dried beans. Within the military budget there must be provided only items of existing military value, because we all know there will be no benefit to the civilian economy. That could have been the reasoning of Napoleon’s Budget Bureau.

Well, the canned food business grew out of that 12,000-franc military development project, and the civilian economy has been profiting from the idea ever since. Also in the supermarket there are frozen TV dinners, first developed by the Air Force to feed B-36 bomber crews on their long missions. And outside the food department there is a household deodorant, developed for the USAF to combat the “hospital smells” that overpowered patients and crew during air evacuations from Korean War field hospitals. The aerosol bomb, used to package the deodorant, was developed as an Army Chemical Corps project during World War II. Today there are more than 300 commercial products sold in these spray cans. The packing alone is a multimillion-dollar business.

There is no need, actually, to stay in the grocery store to find examples of how money spent on military research and development, in this era of speeding technology, produces both swords and plowshares. Visit the local airport. Look overhead at America’s booming commercial airline business. Consider grandma’s tiny new hearing aid. The economic “fallout” from military research and development expenditures is felt in almost every aspect of our daily life, at home and in business.

The point is that all research contributes to the nation’s general welfare and that USAF and the other military departments play a big role in the nation’s research program.

“Research directed at military ends,” says one USAF report, “although it may be concentrated in defense-interest areas, is indistinguishable from scientific research in general. Research progress provides the basis for all technology and is, therefore, essential to new products and better living conditions.”

Some of the best examples of this kind of benefit are found in the field of medicine. In 1957 an Asian flu epidemic swept the country from coast to coast. The fact that there was an amply of supply of “shots” to protect the majority of our people was due to an Army research program carried out to protect soldiers overseas.

During World War II and in the years since, military medical research has made major contributions to surgery. It has introduced new and better ways to treat burns, has improved antibiotics, and has brought them down in price. Currently, a major military medical hunt is on for a new and better substitute for blood plasma. Natural plasma, widely used during the Korean War, is blamed for the prevalence of hepatitis, and affliction that is a common cause of hospitalization. One plasma expander, Dextran, already has resulted from the Army’s research effort, and it is being used by civilian doctors in the treatment of shock, burns, and hemorrhage. The search for a better material is being continued and, as in the missile race, there is competition with the Russians, who have an elaborate program of their own in this area.

In sharp contrast to household and hospital progress are the massive and almost immeasurable strides in atomic energy and electronic computers.

The electronic computer industry is the direct product of an Army-sponsored research project in the early days of World War II. The initial problem was the calculation of trajectory and firing tables at the Ballistic Research Laboratories of the Ordnance Department. By 1946 the laboratory had the first modern electronic computer, built at a cost of $400,000.

Application of these machines to the everyday problems of industry, universities, and government agencies is practically unlimited. Certainly it is impossible to measure the possibilities. From that first $400,000 investment, which appeared on the federal budget as a development item just as Napoleon’s 12,000 francs, the value of computers sold or rented in a single year now approaches a half billion dollars. And the curves can go in only one direction — up.

Programs involving the commercial application of atomic energy are a subject of continued exploration, debate, and industrial concern. Pilot power-generating plants already are under way, and their future, like that of the electronic computer, appears unlimited. The most crass optimists say atomic energy can and will free man from most of his labor and wipe out the age—old hunt for new sources of fuel. Both the Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission are involved.

Frank Pace, Jr., a former Secretary of the Army and Director of the Bureau of the Budget, later President of General Dynamics Corporation, has speculated that the fusion process would have been developed without military funding, but that it would have taken fifty years to reach the point already achieved in ten. As a result of this military requirement, Mr. Pace has pointed out, “We have today the possibility of producing by nuclear fusion of the atoms in sea water limitless power for a million millennia.”

He added:

“In a world soon to be short of conventional power sources, we shall have the guarantee of power in plenty.

“For all the two-thirds of the world’s people who have not the strength nor the knowledge nor the interest nor the opportunity to overcome famine, disease, and poverty, nuclear energy promises such individual and national cultural and economic development as never before dreamed of.”

The amount invested in the nuclear power program runs, of course, into millions of dollars, but the investment will not be big in terms of what this kind of spending for defense will mean to two-thirds of the world’s population. Much of the military program is concerned with power units for remote and inaccessible locations. The application for use in remote areas to meet civilian needs in mining and isolated industries is obvious.

Many of the most important contributions of military research and development are in the wide field of materials, their perfection, and the frequently painful process of learning how to fabricate them. An outstanding example is in the jet engine, where the temperatures forced an elaborate program to find out which alloy could be used for the manufacture of dependable turbine blades and how the blades could be manufactured. USAF’s Air Materiel Command today has a Manufacturing Methods Branch working with a small budget and looking ahead to 1965 and 1970. It is concerned with machine tools, basic industry, methods engineering, and electronics. The Aerospace Industries Association issues an annual “Forecast of Trends and Requirements” which summarizes the outlook for the future in terms of what will be needed in materials and their working in the factory.

The advent of ballistic and guided missiles has resulted in new advances in the use of beryllium, six times stronger than steel and capable of withstanding temperatures up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The Martin Company of Baltimore recently announced that its engineers have found a way to fabricate beryllium sheet metal under a USAF contract that is about two years old. Until now, according to Martin, all beryllium has lacked uniformity and has been as brittle as glass. Because the metal is scarce it will be years before commercial uses are developed, but the pioneering is being done with defense dollars.

More recently, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency announced that it is launching a modest program, entirely in university laboratories, pointing to the development of new materials. In announcing the project Defense Secretary Neil H. McElroy said, “It seems quite obvious that the civilian components of our economy will get a great deal out of whatever is turned up by these programs.”

One of the oft-told stories in the electronic field is that of the requirement for miniaturization of components. The most common example is the old-fashion tube, now replaced by the tiny transistor, and the printed circuit, which has abolished wiring in many subsystems. This area, says one expert, “has seen a quantum jump in the last ten years and can be expected to surge beyond the boundaries of our imagination in the next ten years.” For military purposes, electronic parts have been reduced in size to the point where, instead of 7,000 parts in each cubic foot, we now can put 700,000 parts in the same space. The civilian application, again, is obvious to anyone who has seen a pocket radio, a modern hearing aid, or a television set so thin it fits in a picture frame.

There are myriad other examples, all of them demonstrating that in an age of technological complexity the defense development dollar pays fantastic dividends to the civilian economy. Anyone can scan the list. It includes the new and better clothing, fabrics, packaging, communications, paint, propulsion, weather predictions, and industrial machinery. The effects are felt in photography, synthetic rubber, plastics, lubrication, quality control, and shipping, among others.

Nevertheless, nobody can find a justification or a necessity to argue for more defense spending on purely economic grounds. But it is clear that a big defense budget is with us for a long time to come. For this reason it is essential that we evaluate the defense picture not in terms of how many dollars it will cost in this fiscal year or the next fiscal year, but in terms of that expenditure minus the economic benefits that come from it.

Mr. Pace has made the point in clear language:

“There seems to be on the part of most people a distressing tendency to regard defense spending as contributing only to military survival purposes, as an uneconomic cost endured only to turn back immediate military aggression.

“It is this concept of defense spending, I believe, that makes us so vulnerable to the stock themes of Russian propaganda…. At the slightest hint that the enemy’s policy of military aggression may be diminished or diverted, many of us all too willing to drop the burden of our arms. I am dismayed that so many of our people can be repeatedly faked out….”

He continued:

“As a former Director of the Budget, I am quite aware of the fact that ceilings must be set…. On the other hand, for an economy which is constantly expanding. I feel that the imposition of arbitrary and final limitations, either in our national or in our defense set up, would be unwise.”

Back of this opinion is the truth that the net worth and net cost of today’s armament program calls for an assessment of all the benefits as well as of the liabilities.

In a study on “Defense Spending and the US Economy,” prepared last year by the Operations Research Office of Johns Hopkins University, the authors said:

“Support or criticism of a defense budget should be made upon the basis of a judgment supported by the maximum amount of information pertaining to the benefits and liabilities, explicit and implicit, of the proposed budgeted activities.”

The report said that our historical approach is one of severely limiting defense expenditures in time of peace. This is on the assumption that a dollar for the military is a dollar down the drain and is not put to productive use. The facts, in an age when wars, cold and hot, are fought in laboratories, prove this assumption is false.

“A dollar spent on military research and development,” the ORO report declares, “frequently produces just as much, or more, civilian benefit as a dollar spent for civilian research and development.”

This is something that Napoleon did not know when he paid 12,000 francs for the first canned food and thought it was a military requirement. He got a bargain, and there are bigger bargains ahead for those who will invest in them.